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Mobtown Beat

Renaissance Man

Amateur Preservationist Aims to Turn Battered Brexton Into Artists' Space

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 3/18/1998

The triangle-shaped, turret-topped Brexton Hotel has loomed over the 800 block of Park Avenue since 1881. Designed by prominent architect Charles Cassell, built for Samuel Wyman (of Wyman Park fame), and a one-time lodging site for Duchess of Windsor Wallis Warfield Simpson, the six-story Victorian edifice has a rich and storied past.

But by the time it closed in 1987, the Brexton was serving as low-rent apartments, and for the past decade it's stood vacant and deteriorating. Pigeons are its only residents now.

Today the most important name associated with the building might be Roger Wood, a 28-year-old information-systems consultant and founder of the nonprofit Brexton Renaissance. Its mission: to convert this decaying architectural oddity into gallery and living space for artists.

"I fell in love with the building a few years ago," says Wood, a soft-spoken Laurel resident with wire-framed glasses and a waist-length ponytail. "I hate to see something that grand just going to hell. I figured if nobody else was going to restore it, I could do it."

A self-described arts advocate, Wood freely admits to a total lack of experience with such undertakings. But he's driven nonetheless.

"I have a vision," he says. "I have generally engendered community support, and I have a concept that makes [the Brexton] a keystone structure in the cultural heart of Baltimore. But getting from here to there . . . . I still don't know how I'm going to do it."

His first step is to acquire the building, which is currently owned by Beltsville-based Skipjack Realty. The company acquired the Brexton through a foreclosure in 1995.

"They are asking $350,000, but it's very negotiable," Wood says. In 1995 the city appraised the building and its land at $326,000; yearly property taxes are about $8,000. Once Renaissance's 501(c)(3) paperwork is processed by the Internal Revenue Service, giving it official nonprofit status, Wood plans to begin seeking funds from individuals, corporations, foundations, and government sources. He has already applied for a $35,000 Maryland Historic Trust grant.

"I think the money is out there," he says "Much of it [about $500,000] may come from small personal donations."

The purchase price, though, might be the least of Wood's financial hurdles. Rehabbing the long-abandoned structure, with its smashed windows, water-damaged floors, and pigeon infestation, would be a major undertaking. Most of the interior would have to be gutted, and Wood estimates the project's total cost might top $3 million.

"It's structurally stable as far as I can tell," says Wood, who's had an engineer walk through the building with him. "But if it just keeps going the ways it's going it will be a demolition job."

Wood envisions transforming the Brexton's 16,302 square feet into an "artist-education, outreach, housing, support, and exhibition space." If feasible, the entire first floor would be given over to gallery space, with 15 or so apartments on the upper five floors. Some of these units would be available for short-term use by visiting artists. (Leslie Seyffert, dean of arts at the nearby Baltimore School for the Arts, says the school has talked to Wood about its need for such accommodations.) The basement might house a coffee café.

A host of other costly concerns also confront the project. There are fire- and safety-code issues, a lack of on-site parking, handicapped-accessibility problems, and the possible presence of lead and asbestos.

"It's a very difficult building to work with," Wood says. "It's savable, but only as a not-for-profit, historic-preservation cause. People aren't going to get their money back."

Built as a residential hotel, the Brexton spent most of its life as an apartment house. It was already a bit down at the heels when then-owner Rose Hayes died in 1987 and the place was vacated. (At the time of her death Hayes also owned Charles Street's historic Peabody Bookstore and Beer Stube, which was demolished last year after years of neglect.)

Schemes to convert the Brexton into a high-end bed and breakfast and a multilevel nightclub have come and gone over the past decade. Other proposals floated have included transitional housing for homeless people, a residence for the elderly, and temporary housing for AIDS patients. Wood's artist application is a novel one, but he has been working hard to get others behind it, securing letters of support from U.S. Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes and state legislators representing the 40th District, which includes the Brexton.

"My association is quite enthusiastic," says Malcolm Mason, chairperson of the architectural-review board for the Mount Vernon/Belvedere Association, a community group. "I know that Brexton Renaissance will have some difficulty with funding, but I think the project itself is quite feasible," Mason says. "And we don't want to lose [the Brexton] the way we lost the Peabody Bookstore and Beer Stube."

Jamie Hunt, executive director of the Mount Vernon Cultural District, a marketing organization that promotes visiting of the Mount Vernon area, is another Brexton Renaissance supporter, particularly because of the project's artistic slant.

"I knew a lot of Maryland Institute students who used to live there," Hunt says. "It was a unique space that was inexpensive, and that had a lot of appeal for artists. You're never going to get a building built like it again, and that's what lends character to the area."

But there are naysayers in the community as well, including Thelma Hilger, president of the Antique Row Dealers' Association, which represents the antique merchants along the 700 and 800 blocks of North Howard street, a block from the Brexton.

"I think it's ridiculous to spend over a million dollars on that place," Hilger says. "For the number of units you'd get out of it, it's not practical. I'm all for historic buildings, but that doesn't mean that every single one of them deserves to be restored."

In addition to running an antique business, Hilger says, she has nearly 30 years of experience in historic renovation, having undertaken rehab projects throughout Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon. She says the Brexton's odd logistics make demolition the only answer.

"I would never get involved with a building that small that requires an elevator," she says. "It doesn't make economic sense. There are a lot of projects they could get into that would be a lot more significant and provide more housing for the money."

Wood takes such doubts in stride. His undertaking, as he's fond of saying, "is a cause, not a development project." And he contends the Brexton's quirkiness is precisely what makes it so valuable: It's an irreplaceable hunk of 19th-century Baltimore.

"I have adopted this building," Wood says. "My intention is to save the building and preserve its historic integrity. If some other developer comes in and buys it, I will promptly turn into a hounding little Chihuahua watchdog making sure they treat it right."

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